ieces of houses floated like boats down the streets. Civilians waded through waist-high water to seek out their neighbors for help. Cars had suddenly become submarines. With over $70 billion worth of damage and 1,800 people dead, New Orleans in 2005 seemed like the bleakest place on earth.
Among the darkness, a ray of hope emerged. Liz McCartney, BC ’94, made helping as many people as she possibly could her mission in a time when many desperately needed it. This desire to make change soon became more than a passion. It became her life.
Today, McCartney is the COO of the St. Bernard Project (SBP). Founded by McCartney and her husband, Zack Rosenburg, the $35 million company has grown into a booming national nonprofit that rebuilds after natural disasters across the country. McCartney can attest to the fact, however, that SBP emerged from humble beginnings. Her story of wanting to help others began long before even those first developments. In fact, it began with a dream of being a teacher as a freshman living in Cheverus Hall.
Originally from Washington, D.C., McCartney came to Boston College to study education and become a teacher in some capacity. One of the most important parts of her college experience here, she said, was the friendships she was able to develop. In fact, the girls on her Cheverus floor have become lifelong friends. They attended each other’s weddings, got to know each other’s kids, and even reunited in both Nashville and London last year.
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Beyond the lifelong friends she made at BC, McCartney noted the importance of the teaching opportunities she had in shaping her desire to help others. Getting to roll up her sleeves and gain real life experience in a classroom was an especially valuable part of her BC journey.
“Having the opportunity to work alongside mentor teachers and have exposure to different schools, communities, and challenges helped me understand what classrooms I would be most effective in beyond college,” McCartney said.
Just a couple months after graduating in 1994, McCartney found herself teaching in classrooms far from the traditional ones she had adjusted to during her teaching experiences at BC. Fulfilling her lifelong dream of being in the Peace Corps, McCartney ventured to Lushoto, a town in Tanzania, on a teaching assignment. Being completely devoid of electricity and running water was not the biggest difficulty she faced, McCartney said—navigating how to build trust with a group of students she was unfamiliar with in overcrowded classrooms with limited resources was.
“I thought I knew a lot. This showed me how much there was to learn,” McCartney said. “Going to this life from my experience at BC was very eye-opening. It was humbling. I’m certain I learned more than I taught.”
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After her assignment in the Peace Corps, McCartney taught in San Francisco for a few years before finally returning to her hometown in D.C. While living there, McCartney continued teaching, this time at a community center that focused on working with economically disadvantaged children. Rosenburg, her boyfriend at the time, was a lawyer who represented clients who were criminals. Knowing that his clients came from similar backgrounds as the children she taught instilled an even stronger desire within her to do anything she could to ensure they wouldn’t end up on the same path, she said.
McCartney’s education at BC, and her subsequent masters at George Washington University, had prepared her thoroughly for a life in the education field, she said. With her secure job in D.C., it seemed that she would continue pursuing similar jobs throughout her life. But when Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans in 2005 and produced unimaginable destruction, she put her life on hold. While the hurricane upended millions by force, McCartney decided to upend her whole life by choice to help them.
In 2006, McCartney traveled down to New Orleans with her mother and Rosenburg, turning their once predictable careers into ones shrouded in uncertainty. McCartney’s experience in teaching and Rosenburg’s experience as a lawyer prepared them little for a world of rebuilding from disaster. So they started from square one.
The couple began volunteering in St. Bernard’s Parish, located just outside of New Orleans, which was flooded to the point of inhabitability. For one month, they watched a recovery process plagued with inefficiencies. After returning home briefly to D.C., McCartney and Rosenburg made the bold decision to move to New Orleans permanently. From that flooded parish and the goal of helping as many people as they could, SBP was born.
“We didn’t have some great business plan, we didn’t have much money or resources,” McCartney said. “We had a pick-up truck we bought used and a bunch of tools we begged and borrowed from family and friends. And that was our very humble beginning.”
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McCartney also owes SBP’s creation to the memorable people she met and helped while in New Orleans. She recalled a strong-willed World War II veteran she saw often, who walked assisted by a walker but was adamant about carrying his own lunch tray. Watching him break down sobbing one day at lunch, asking hopelessly why no one was willing to help him, was a moment McCartney said she’ll never forget. He was the first of many people she has seen break down, but it was this veteran in particular, McCartney said, who inspired her to move down to New Orleans permanently.
“We were totally unprepared for what we saw and who we met,” McCartney said. “It was so far from what could happen in our country. We couldn’t get our heads around it. What really inspired and motivated us to start SBP was meeting people who were affected by Katrina, for the first time in their lives, had to wait in line for food. Their lives were in complete turmoil. And there was no clear path to get home.”
From those simple beginnings in New Orleans, SBP took off and grew exponentially. The nonprofit’s budget for the first year was just $169,000. The next year, it shot up to $1.5 million. The following year it reached $2.5 million.
With an increased budget, the extent of SBP’s reach in touching the lives of others increased. In addition to more funds to fuel its efforts, SBP began partnering with AmeriCorps, training and hiring its staff to assist in rebuilding areas affected by natural disasters. Today, 50 percent of the SBP staff is comprised of AmeriCorps members, a statistic that McCartney takes great pride in.
“Watching people grow and helping folks on their professional journey is very rewarding,” McCartney said.
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In addition to its profound natural disaster recovery efforts, SBP has now expanded its endeavors largely on prevention efforts. They have also prioritized instruction of others to adopt better recovery processes.
“For us, we can’t just react after,” McCartney said. “A big thing for us is getting ahead of it and identifying communities at risk. If we’re doing our work well, there shouldn’t be a need for SBP. I believe that all of us working in the nonprofit sector should have that in mind.”
Living by its mission of shrinking the time between disaster and recovery, SBP not only trains AmeriCorps members, but it also educates government leaders on how to assist in the recovery process, which has become essential to its mission.
“We’re always advocating for change in the [public] sector,” McCartney said. “In a lot of disaster impact areas, [the communities] are awarded federal funds. The problem we’ve seen is that these states will get the money, but they have trouble spending it efficiently. People who need it have to wait a long time.”
Today, with McCartney and Rosenburg’s guidance, SBP has been able to assist 11 disaster-impacted communities since its creation. Most recently, SBP has been working in the Bahamas, focusing on home repair and collaborating with several children’s homes that were damaged by the hurricane. It’s also aiming to help rebuild the facilities in smarter ways in the hopes of providing better services for the kids.
McCartney’s work has not gone unnoticed. In 2008, she was named CNN’s Hero of the Year, and was a nominee for CNN’s Superhero of the Decade award—the latter prompted The Heights to feature McCartney in 2018.
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It’s been nearly 14 years since McCartney first made her move down south, but she still continues her efforts in the birthplace of SBP. In New Orleans, SBP has been developing affordable housing. It has recently finished an apartment building that became the first net-zero energy building in New Orleans, equipped with solar panels that would have no power bill.
While SBP has blossomed from a simple goal of helping others after disaster to the booming nonprofit it is today, McCartney emphasized that the organization hasn’t strayed from its original mission.
With the extensive efforts they have under their belts, McCartney and the SBP team have been recognized by CNN, former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, and even then-President Barack Obama. Nevertheless, McCartney remains adamant that SBP’s success had little to do with the guidance of her and Rosenburg.
“People came out of the woodworks to help the [New Orleans] community,” McCartney said. “It didn’t have a whole lot to do with us. We simply cared and were coming from the right place.”
The journey to reach her career in disaster relief was far from conventional, but being willing to take a risk allowed her to discover this field.
“Be open. I had no idea that I would ever live in New Orleans and do this kind of work,” McCartney said. “On one hand, it’s terrible that we have to do this work because it means people are suffering. But it has been a tremendous learning experience. Had I not been open to it, I don’t know what I’d be doing today.”
Photos Courtesy of Liz McCartney